Gill admits to United�s fragile grip on China

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Although United's four-match, three-country expedition has been received far more positively than the Real Madrid outfit they have followed round Asia - and is expected to net them around �3million - there have not been the same large crowds and frenzied welcome they received on their last trip to the continent four years ago.

At a time when Europe's footballing giants are trying to devise strategies to maximise income from an Asian public that appeared to have an insatiable appetite for the game, there are some indications of a major fall in interest.

Real, whose tour ended on a high note with a 3-1 triumph over Jubilo Iwata this evening, have been castigated for their aloofness and general lack of application on and off the pitch.

No such allegation could be levelled against United, who have wasted no opportunity to press the flesh at all levels, sometimes three or four times a day, and at least turning up to the National Stadium tonight for what had been billed as a training session when none had actually been built into the schedule.

Players are still surrounded by autograph hunters and fans gather at airports and outside team hotels to get a glimpse of their heroes, but if the hard evidence of the last five days is to be believed, Gill has plenty of work to do if he is to squeeze the extra profits new owner Malcolm Glazer demands.

Saturday's gate for the 2-0 win over Hong Kong, while reasonable, was 8,000 down on their last visit, while the Workers Stadium was not even a third full for the Red Devils' 3-0 triumph against Beijing Hyundai last night.

"Clearly, last night's crowd was disappointing," admitted Gill. "There are various factors behind that, which will need to be investigated.

"But we were very pleased with the crowd in Hong Kong and we are confident there will be good crowds for our final two matches. "What is happening on this tour does not lead us to the conclusion popularity in us is waning."

United's commercial team have launched various ventures already over the last few days, including a dedicated Chinese-language website and a membership scheme specific to Asian-based supporters.

Gill could also argue their major fan base remains in the south-east of the region, in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and that 40,000 tickets for tomorrow's encounter with Kashima Antlers have already been sold, guaranteeing a gate double that of the J-League leaders' current average.

But given the number of clubs who now head to the Far East on an annual basis, it would be no surprise if supporters were becoming more discerning about who to watch, particularly when, as in China's case, ticket prices are twice the weekly wage.

Yet Gill remains confident enough in the Old Trafford outfit's drawing power to believe they will be immune from any significant downturn in support.

And though he did not mention Real Madrid by name, he drew parallels with United's approach to the accusations which have been levelled against the Spanish giants over the past week.

"I can't speak for other clubs, I only read what I see," he said. "But we do not just come into these countries, take the money and leave.

"We meet with officials, we meet with the fans and we meet with local people to try and encourage football development in the region.

"We don't see a weakening of demand from the clubs who play us, the fans who come to watch us and the sponsors who want to get involved. We are comfortable with the situation as it is."

After last summer's shambolic trip to the United States, which cost the club much of the goodwill they gained on a highly-successful sell-out tour 12 months previously, extensive long-haul pre-season tours will only be arranged every two years, when there is no major championship.

It means it will be at least 2007, and more likely 2009 before United are back, by which time they will know whether their current marketing strategies have worked, although Gill insists nothing will be sacrificed on the playing side as the search for increased profits continues.

"We try to get the right balance between the commercial side and, most importantly, the football side.

"This is a key part of our preparation for the new season. If that isn't spot on we will get a lot of aggro from Sir Alex Ferguson and the team.

"We work closely together to make sure it works well. If it does, the other aspects follow on from that. We are very confident we are doing things the right way."

Comments